Florence Courthouse

Photos

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Description

It's the oldest continuously used public building in Arizona. Unfortunately the courthouse is showing its age. The Arizona Heritage Fund for Historic Preservation has awarded Pinal County $100,000 for its renovation, and even more funding could be available from the town of Florence construction tax.

Transcript

Narrator:
Time stands still at the old Pinal County Courthouse in Florence, at least on the stamp-metal clock faces.

Ernie Feliz:
There's never been clocks in the clock tower. There wasn't enough money, and so they brought in clock facings, and these are made of pressed metal.

Narrator:
Some folks think the clocks read 11:44, others 9:00 or 11:43. Here's one version of why the hands rest where they do.

John Swearengin:
Then they built this courthouse, they set the time on there at about a quarter to 12:00 so people coming into town would know they could come to the courthouse and get their business done before they shut it down at noontime.

Narrator:
But there is no doubt time has been flying for the rest of the structure, the oldest continuously used public building in Arizona. The 111-year-old courthouse was built in 1891 for $29,000.

John Swearengin:
This was the second courthouse that the county built. This is the third courthouse they used. They rented the first one, which was an adobe building, but the second one -- or the first one they built was McFarland state park now.

Narrator:
The courthouse was constructed to show that the County was planning to prosper, though the curtains in the clock tower are actually just paint.

Ernie Feliz:
This is American Victorian Architectural style. It's a little bit later in the period when we begin to see -- we're getting away from adobe construction. And we're able to -- we have a railroad now and we can bring in materials from other parts of the country.

Narrator:
The building is rich in architectural detail. Millwork abounds throughout, some of the original doorknobs still in use, not something you can get at Lowe's. Feliz, whose family has lived in Florence for about as long as the courthouse has been around, has fond memories of the building, especially the staircase.

Ernie Feliz:
I'm talking 5 years old, my mother brought me in here. I walked in and I saw that split staircase, that was something I wanted to run up and down all day on because it just looked so fabulous, you know?

Narrator:
But the building where John Swearengin worked as a clerk of the court in the 1940s is falling apart.

John Swearengin:
The only thing it's done since -- really, since I worked here was deteriorate, more or less, because like me, it got older, and you have to allow certain deterioration.

Ernie Feliz:
The most pressing problem is the clock tower and the cupola. It wasn't constructed very well to begin with, and then over time, it's just gotten worn and worn and worn, and it tends to sway, and it could fall down. And then there's the roof, which is in bad need of repair. It leaks.

Narrator:
The weight of the signature clock tower is crushing the attic. In the 1950s, county supervisors wanted to cut off the clock tower, but citizens fought that as they fought a move in the 1990s to install real clocks. Temporary solutions such as bailing wire and bracing the sagging roof with numerous boards have held for decades, but a more permanent solution to the building's decay will be expensive. It'll take $2.5 million to renovate the old courthouse and help continue its reign as the state's oldest continuously used public building. The old courthouse in Florence has seen a lot of history. Trunk murderess Winnie Ruth Judd had a sanity hearing there, the last stagecoach robber in America had her trial in it, and there's even talk of ghosts.

John Swearengin:
The one thing that I can say: there might be a ghost somewhere in there. It's not the ghosts, really. It's the ones who were left behind in the cemetery. This building sits on what used to be the town cemetery, and when they took all of the bodies out, they missed a few naturally, because a lot of them weren't marked. And some of those ghosts may be floating around in there. That's the only basis for a ghost story that I know of from this building here.

Narrator:
But ghosts don't stop people from loving the old courthouse.

John Swearengin:
Oh, they love this place. You know, it's a treasure for the whole county and for the state, really, the people in Florence particularly because it's a part of our lives.